Officers, sergeants resign en masse from Portland’s Rapid Response Team crowd control unit

Officers who serve on the Portland Police Bureau’s specialized crowd control unit, known as the Rapid Response Team, voted to resign from the team during a meeting Wednesday night then alerted the chief’s office.

The unprecedented move by about 50 officers, detectives and sergeants to disband their own team came a day after a team member, Officer Cody Budworth, was indicted, accused of fourth-degree assault stemming from a baton strike against a protester last summer.

A team lieutenant called Chief Chuck Lovell to inform him the members of the team, who serve voluntarily in the assignments, voted to resign due to perceived lack of support from City Hall and from the district attorney over the past year during more than 100 consecutive nights of protest coverage. The indictment of one of the team’s officers appeared to be the last straw.

“Have I ever seen anything like this in my career? No, I don’t think any of us have,” said Deputy Chief Chris Davis, serving Thursday as acting chief while Chief Chuck Lovell is out of state for a week in St. Augustine, Florida, for training.

The Police Bureau acknowledged Thursday that the Rapid Response officers “no longer comprise a team.” The officers remain sworn members of the bureau but no longer work on the specialized team that received additional training and was an addition to the officers’ daily assignments.

Mayor Ted Wheeler, who serves as police commissioner, Davis and Lovell met via video conference Thursday morning. Police are reaching out to Oregon State Police for its mobile response team assistance as they work to protect the community if protests occur in the next few nights. The mayor also expects to reach out to Gov. Kate Brown to consider back-up support from the Oregon National Guard if necessary, according to his office.

The mayor also scheduled a video conference at 11 a.m. , inviting Rapid Response Team members to share their concerns directly with him.

“We’re committed to providing the community the best service that we can. And this does not mean that there will be no response in public order situations,” Davis said. “We’ll use the resources that we have.”

The team has been on the front lines at social justice protests held in the city after the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and pinned him to the pavement.

Many demonstrations devolved into clashes with officers late at night, and at times ended with vandalism, property damage and fires set. The crowd control team was the unit often directed to disperse crowds after police declared unlawful assemblies or riots.

Their use of force has led to multiple civil lawsuits in state and federal court, sanctions from a judge and now an indictment.

Aside from Oregon State Police, few outside police agencies in the past year were willing to assist Portland in protest coverage.

Davis said Portland patrol officers assigned to mobile field forces also likely will be called in to action, and the chief also can order the Rapid Response Team officers to provide crowd control as well. An incident management team will be activated Thursday night and likely through the weekend should any problems arise, he said.

The current contract with the union says the City retains “the exclusive right to exercise the customary functions of management including, but not limited to, directing the activities of the Bureau, determining the levels of service and methods of operation... the right to hire, lay off, transfer and promote; to discipline or discharge for cause, to determine work schedules and assign work and any other such rights not specifically referred to in this Contract.”

In late October, the president of the police union, the Portland Police Association, sent the mayor and police chief a letter, urging both to “stand up and publicly support Police Bureau members who voluntarily serve on the Rapid Response Team (RRT).”

The union president urged the mayor and City Hall to “stop using RRT members as political pawns,” and called the team’s members “exhausted and injured.” He wrote then that the “only glue holding their team together’' was their “commitment to serve their city.”

“Our RRT members do not volunteer to have Molotov cocktails, fireworks, explosives, rocks, bottles, urine, feces and other dangerous objects thrown at them,” wrote Daryl Turner, then president of the union. He noted that the team members volunteer for the work without any specialty pay.

“Nor do they volunteer to have threats of rape, murder and assaults on their families hurled at them. They do not volunteer to suffer serious injuries, to be subjected to warrantless criticism and face allegations by elected officials, or to suffer through baseless complaints and lengthy investigations devoid of due process.”

He urged that the trained supervisors of the Rapid Response Team, “not politicians,” be allowed to make decisions on police tactics to use during demonstrations, and that investigations into use of force by team members be done in a timely manner. He noted that a number of seasoned team officers had been pulled from the team during months-long investigations.

“These officers find themselves in a no-win situation. They are told to stand down and only intervene when things have gotten so out of control that they have no other option than to use high levels of force to regain control of unlawful demonstrations,” Turner wrote. “They are criticized for their perceived inaction on the front end and are criticized for their inevitable use of force on the back end. They can’t win because of the position others have put them in.’'

The acting chief acknowledged the “challenging times,” the Police Bureau and community has faced in the last 14 months during the pandemic and massive social justice movement in the wake of Floyd’s videotaped killing.

“Our entire organization, and not even just our sworn staff, but also our professional staff in the last 14 months, has been put through something, none of us have ever seen in our careers, at a level and an intensity that I don’t think any other city in the United States has experienced,” Davis said.

He said he recognizes that the officers serving so many consecutive nights on the protest lines have been facing “really, really extreme circumstances,” which “takes a toll.’'

“It’s my responsibility to make sure that if we send someone to go out and do something, that I’m not subjecting them to any more risk than I absolutely have to, and that’s why we have to be smart about how we send them out to do this work, and what strategy we want them to follow,” he said.

Budworth marked the first Rapid Response Team officer to face criminal prosecution stemming from force used during a protest.

Budworth is accused of striking a woman, Teri Jacobs, in the face with a baton after knocking her to the ground on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard after a riot was declared near the Multnomah Building on Aug. 18.

Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt described Budworth’s baton strike as excessive force that was legally unjustified.

The district attorney also told The Oregonian/OregonLive Tuesday afternoon that he had asked the Oregon Department of Justice to review for potential criminal prosecution the force used by another Rapid Response Team member, Det. Erik Kammerer, during protests.

The union criticized Budworth’s prosecution as politically driven, and it contends Budworth’s baton strike was “accidental,” not criminal. The Portland Police Association issued a statement Tuesday, saying Schmidt needs to prosecute “the real criminals who are perpetrating vandalism, arson, gun violence, and other violent crimes in our community,” and not go after officers attempting to do their jobs with little support.

On Thursday, Schmidt issued this statement: “Management and staffing of the Rapid Response Team falls within the purview of the leadership of the Portland Police Bureau. I have confidence that the Bureau will continue their mission to maintain public safety. In the meantime, my office will continue to focus on the fair and just prosecution of criminal matters. We cannot expect the community to trust law enforcement if we hold ourselves to a lower standard.”

In March, a federal judge also restricted officers with the Rapid Response Team from using crowd-control launchers during protests until they completed further training and “can recognize and articulate a threat without speculating and before using less-lethal force.’'

U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez’s sanctions came after the judge’s findings in November that two officers had acted in contempt of his June 26 order barring police from firing FN303s and 40mm less-lethal launchers and using pepper spray on people engaged in passive resistance. The case stemmed from a suit filed by Don’t Shoot Portland, a Black-led nonprofit that advocates for social and racial justice in the city.

Patrol officers who aren’t part of the specialized Rapid Response Team but are on mobile field forces have also been called in for protest coverage. Unlike the Rapid Response Team members, who are armed with less-lethal launchers, impact munitions and riot-control agents, the mobile field officers carry batons and pepper spray.

Rapid Response Team officers have used such riot-control agents as tear gas, OC (the irritant Oleoresin Capsicum, or pepper spray) pyrotechnic gas or smoke, which are either fired from a 40 mm launcher or thrown in canisters. Impact munitions they’ve been armed with include foam-tipped projectiles fired from a 40mm launcher or a plastic projectile containing an inert powder and non-toxic chemical called bismuth that’s fired from an FN 303 air-powered launcher. They received advanced training to respond to public order policing, natural or man-made disasters.

Last fall, the mayor issued an order for police to stop using tear gas for crowd control. There was no additional written guidance given to officers, beyond the mayor’s press release, the U.S. Department of Justice found. When Wheeler was asked about this, he told federal investigators that he would allow police to use tear gas in cases when lives were at risk and nothing else could resolve the threat -- and only if he or his designee approved its use. Yet this explanation contradicted the mayor’s initial press release, the Justice Department lawyers found.

“Banning reasonable police tactics and less lethal tools only serves to escalate police action and force, rather than allowing RRT to use lower levels of force to control unlawful activity. Remove politics from police operations. Allow RRT supervisors, who have the most training, experience, and knowledge about crowd control, to manage these events unencumbered by shifting political winds,” Turner wrote to the mayor and chief in late October.

The Rapid Response Team members also have been frustrated by the number of protest-related prosecutions that were rejected by the district attorney’s office. As of late January, the office had rejected almost three-quarters of 1,057 protest-related arrests referred by police.

The dismantling of the team comes as the Police Bureau is struggling with an exodus of officers resigning from the bureau due to low morale and complaints about lack of support from city commissioners. It also comes amid a spiraling number of shootings and homicides, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s formal notice to the city that the Police Bureau has failed to comply with mandated reforms required under its settlement agreement.

Further, any urgency to create a new uniformed, proactive policing team to try to combat the city’s gun violence has not materialized, with less than a handful of officers volunteering to serve on a team that the police chief had anticipated would include two sergeants and 12 officers.

-- Maxine Bernstein

Email at [email protected]; 503-221-8212

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